Today, Augmented Reality (AR) is a technology that many of us can experience through our smartphones in thousands of apps enabled by Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore. However, wearable AR through devices like Microsoft HoloLens is currently having more success as an application for business. While consumer adoption of wearable AR (hereafter just referred to as AR) has yet to truly take-off, I believe that the readiness for widespread consumer take-up could be as little as four years away.
For this to happen, the form factor and technology behind AR need to be developed further to create devices that look great, are comfortable all day, and provide dynamic and rich experiences through natural interactions. At CES 2019, there were no products I saw that would make the mass consumer adoption of AR happen overnight, but still plenty on display to make me believe that things are on the right track. Here are some my own highlights of the devices and technologies that feed my belief of a bright future for consumer AR.
Currently, AR uptake among business is way ahead of uptake among consumers. This is largely due to two reasons. Firstly, the form factor of most AR devices matters less for businesses and, secondly, there are strong business cases for the use of AR in enterprise.
Focusing on the form factor, workers – unlike consumers – have less choice in deciding what AR device they use. Comfort is important, but less so for the often shorter uses cases for workers, while style is not even on the radar. The form factor of AR devices – not just comfort levels, but how they look – matters considerably more to consumers and, more importantly, they have absolute choice in what they buy.
The overall cost of AR devices for business is high, often around the $2,000 to $3,000 mark. Whereas the average consumer is unlikely to afford these devices, businesses can justify the high up-front cost of implementing AR into their work practices by pointing to the proven time and cost savings, especially for manufacturing and training. As a result, significant investment into AR adoption is being made by businesses. In 2017 alone, $352 million was spent on on-site assembly and safety and $309 million on in-process manufacturing and training. More recently, a $480 million deal was signed between the U.S. Army and Microsoft to provide prototype Microsoft HoloLens AR systems for use on the battlefield and in training.
The growth of AR in business was further demonstrated at CES 2019. RealMax Qian, which uses Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835, is one device targeting the business and education sectors, particularly healthcare professionals training. The headset has a wide 100° field of view (FoV), bright 2k LED display and motion tracking. While it won’t win any style awards, the headset is reasonably light and comfortable to wear. Elsewhere at CES, Flex, an electronics Original Design Manufacturer, unveiled a new AR reference design for business-grade AR applications.
Going back to the consumer space, AR will become more widespread once the technology in headsets is boiled down into lightweight, stylish, capable, smart glasses. At CES 2019, it was pleasing to see that AR smart glasses are possible with the right technology and investment. The production launch of the Vuzix Blade took place at the event, and, while I see these as more of a device for business, they certainly hit some consumer-friendly product points: lightweight, stylish, and pricing at $999. There were many great demos showcasing applications on the Blade, which features integration with Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant, some of which you can see this video on a day in the life with Vuzix Blade AR Smart Glasses.
Another first move into AR smart glasses was made by Nreal, a company founded by a former Magic Leap engineer. One of the most impressive features is how incredibly lightweight – just 85g – the wearable glasses are, despite having a bright, 52° FoV display and cameras for pose tracking. However, perhaps most importantly, it actually looked like a trendy consumer product!
Away from wearable products, there are other products at CES 2019 enabling great experiences through AR technologies. Some noticeable products were the range of ‘smart mirrors’, which showed people how they would look with different hairstyles and clothes in different colours, simply by standing in front of it. This looks like an amazingly convenient way to shop for clothes in stores and at home. Imagine actually getting the right size clothing, first time, every time, without even trying them on!
Shifting focus to the technology inside AR devices; improving the display, pose tracking and depth mapping are all crucial areas that need improvements. At CES 2019, I was impressed with several established companies and start-ups that were demoing their latest products and innovations.
Plessey uses a unique monolithic production method to produce displays based on microLED technology. MicroLED offers many potential advantages for future AR displays; factorially higher brightness over LED/OLED, lower power consumption over DLP and LCoS, and 80 percent plus light emission out of the display (typical see-through AR displays today are less than 20 percent). Plessey had an impressive private demo of an incredibly small, bright display engine inputting into a thin lightweight optics, showing huge promise for future AR wearables.
AntiLatency, a product based on the Arm Cortex-M3 processor, is a positional tracking technology with extremely high accuracy and – unsurprisingly based on the name – low latency. The company behind the product had a very good demo of navigation through a virtual environment on their stand where I was able to walk around a puzzle maze in Virtual Reality (VR). This felt very real despite the actual space just being an empty space of several metres square. Though the company is initially targeting arena scale VR experiences, I believe that the technology could be used for many other applications beyond navigation including Human Machine Interface (HMI) for natural AR interaction.
Lucid Inside adds depth to dual cameras – which is important as 270 million dual camera smartphones were shipped in 2018 – to provide highly accurate real-time map generation for cars, smartphones, and AR. My colleague Roberto Lopez Mendez has already outlined why depth is so important on mobile, particularly for AR. Lucid Inside is one of the best machine learning-based 3D-mapping products I’ve seen, providing incredibly high-resolution depth maps. The product also has integrated SLAM features, an important enabling technology for AR as my colleague Sylwester Bala discussed previously.
There is still plenty of work to be done, but I remain confident that AR will become a ‘must have’ for consumers. Companies are designing the smart glasses that consumers will want to wear and developing the technologies that will provide the rich AR experiences that consumers seek. There are still huge system, compute and design challenges to overcome, but, based on my experience at CES 2019, I’m more convinced than ever that AR is on the right track to be everyone’s must have device for 2023.
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